Zichron Yaakov and Surroundings

The festival period is over and the course is now back in full swing; our first field trip of the year (not including the campus in the Galilee) was to the area around Zichron Yaakov, located in the north of the centre of the country.

Zichron Yaakov is a lovely town in a beautiful location on the southern slopes of the Carmel Mountain with fantastic views west over the Mediterranean and the coastal plain. We began the day here, learning about the founders of one of the first settlements in what was later referred to as the period of the First Aliyah. Aliyah means moving to Israel, and although there were waves of Jewish immigration over the centuries to this country, the period from 1882-1903 was deemed to be the First Aliyah as it marked the first wave of immigration where there was some sort of sense of being at the beginning of a project to create a new Jewish homeland.

Children's graves in the Zichron Yaakov cemetery
Children’s graves in the Zichron Yaakov cemetery

Zichron Yaakov was founded by a group of Romanian Jews who purchased the land from local Arabs and proceeded to make a very bad job of farming it; it was not something with which they had much experience. Many also died from poor sanitary conditions and malaria, and after stopping at the Founders’ Memorial we spent some time in the cemetery where one of the sad sites was the large amount of children’s graves – many did not make it in this harsh environment.

It was a similar story in other First Aliyah settlements but fortunately these pioneers found a saviour in the form of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. This French philanthropist bankrolled the new settlements and built a bureaucratic framework to help them develop their agricultural skills and manage themselves properly (these clerks were not always loved by the residents, but they were probably needed!). We continued down the main street of the old town, noting buildings of interest, hearing tales of the town’s establishment, and learning about the subversive Nili spy ring. This small group of people, based in Zichron Yaakov, spied for the British against the occupying Ottoman Empire, at great personal risk to themselves and indeed to the rest of the Jews living in the area at the time (the Ottomans believed in collective punishment). They no doubt played an important role in the British conquest of the area in WWI, but they were not popular or supported by the Jewish establishment at the time.

Rothschild coat of arms at Ramat Hanadiv Park
Rothschild coat of arms at Ramat Hanadiv Park

Having had an introduction to Baron de Rothschild’s largesse, we ventured to the nearby Ramat Hanadiv Park to visit his mausoleum. It is a beautiful, European style park (unusual in Israel) and the western side offers lovely views down to the coast. The mausoleum is hidden away and very grand. Apparently when the Baron was interred there with his wife, a representative brought a bag of earth from every settlement that he supported to help cover the coffin. A nice touch. It seems that it is impossible to overstate his contribution to supporting the beginnings of what would become the State of Israel.

Etzel Memorial at Shuni
Etzel Memorial at Shuni

We continued a little down the hill to the Jabotinsky Park. Here, we stopped at the Etzel Memorial and then visited the nearby Etzel museum, learning about the group of Zionist activists who rejected the pre-state self-defence policy of Ben Gurion in favour of offensive activities against the British. These included organising the daring break out from Akko Prison and the blowing up of the mandate headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The Etzel members used to train here (the noise of firing from the nearby British army base would help cover up their training activity) hence the site of the memorial.

Theatre at Shuni
Theatre at Shuni

Also in the park is the Shuni theatre, a remant of what used to be a grand Roman city. The theatre is still used for music concerts and it can be great to go there for an intimate event in an ancient setting. We looked behind the stage to see the remains of a grand pool; one theory is that here were held naumachiae – Roman gladiator water battles – although the evidence is inconclusive. From the spring at shuni ran a grand aqueduct transporting water to the nearby city of Caesarea, the Roman capital and the largest port in the empire.

Inside the Roman aqueduct in Mei Kedem
Inside the Roman aqueduct in Mei Kedem

We continued on the theme of water, travelling to the site of Mei Kedem where it is possible to walk through a 300m section of a later subterranean Roman aqueduct also leading to Caesarea. The aqueduct still contains water and the combination of wading and torches made for quite some fun. We also enjoyed the local fauna – watching a frog swim between my legs was a highlight! On a hot day, it was great to cool off in the spring water, and we emerged damp and happy.

Our final stop of the day took us right up to the modern period as we visited the former British internment camp at Atlit. In the 1930s, for a variety of reasons, the British decided to cap Jewish immigration into the Mandate of Palestine. Unfortunately, this coincided with the time when this immigration was needed most as Nazi persecution intensified and spread throughout Europe.

Reconstruction of a 'maapilim' ship at Atlit
Reconstruction of a ‘maapilim’ ship at Atlit

The Jews in Israel created elaborate schemes to thwart the British and bring Jews into Israel despite the new regulations. These immigrants were called maapilim. Many made it to Israel safely but others drowned on the treacherous sea journeys to Israel in overcrowded boats. Others were caught by the British and kept in the prisoner camp at Atlit – this was a traumatic experience for those escaping Nazi persecution; one of the first things they had to do was to strip and enter the showers for disinfection. The visit to the camp includes these showers together with a mock up of a dormitory. A recent addition to the site is a boat fitted out like those that brought over the maapilim; as you go through the boat there are a series of films portraying a typical experience. It was very interesting, if rather sad.

It was on this slightly sombre note that we concluded the day. Although we were pleased to learn that in 1948 these prisoners, together with those whom the British had deported to camps in Cyprus, were welcomed into the new State of Israel.

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